What can be said when your name becomes synonymous with a movement? Perhaps that his movie, which had its beginning and middle, has finally found its end. Jean-Luc Godard, one of the last remaining pillars of the French New Wave, has died at age 91.
The influential Cahiers du Cinéma critic-turned-filmmaker’s death was confirmed by his legal advisor Patrick Jeanneret. He died by assisted suicide at his home in Rolle, Switzerland after suffering from “multiple disabling pathologies.”
“He could not live like you and me, so he decided with a great lucidity, as he had all his life, to say, ‘Now, it’s enough,’” Jeanneret said.
But Godard never seemed to live like you and me. As our Tim Grierson wrote in 2014, “It’s challenging to write about Jean-Luc Godard, not because his legacy doesn’t warrant consideration but because he’s more of an idea than a person in a lot of film lovers’ minds.”
Godard represented not just “personal, uncompromising moviemaking that inspired a generation of writers and directors to look at Hollywood history in a new way,” but an opportunity to enact change in art that you love. To be able to take ideas, critiques, and turn them into progress. His movement helped make filmmaking closer, more playful, more recognizable. He—alongside the likes of François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer—saw the old ways as overly literary, stuffy, formulaic. He personally made cinematic innovation accessible for the everyday film nerd.
He also pushed the notion of a director’s authorial power over a film, something he put into action with idiosyncratic films ranging from Breathless (with its jump cuts and pop culture riffs) to Alphaville (with its oddball sci-fi) to Every Man for Himself (with its stunning slow-motion) to Goodbye to Language (with its boundary-blurring 3-D). Godard never stopped seeing what cinema was capable of, and that made him a hero to those that loved movies. He was both provocateur and savior—an artist whose very life was a thorn in the side of all that is mainstream and proper.
But that wasn’t all Godard was. His collaborations with Anna Karina allowed her to burn up the screen; his visual essays and avant garde polemics betrayed a passionate maturation. He was also prone to personal feuds, mean-spirited professional digs, alleged anti-Semitism and vague evasions. He inspired most of what modern film has become, and certainly hated a similar percentage. A fascinating, difficult man with a fascinating, difficult artistry, Godard stood alone. Those his movies touched are innumerable.